I never thought I would review – and love – a novel that includes recipes. But Michelle Huneven’s “Search” and her Midmorning Glory Muffins made me believe. Which is appropriate because “Search” is a story about the evolutionary nature of belief.
Others, however, may be skeptical about going into this explicitly religious novel. After all, “Search” is about a church looking for a new minister. The chapters feature a long series of committee meetings – a plot that could test the faith of even the most devout reader, despite the inclusion of Escarole Salad with Favas, Mint, and Pecorino. Indeed, in summary “Search” sounds oddly ecclesial and culinary, like Marilynne Robinson with a light vinaigrette.
Here it is: what follows is not so much a criticism as an act of evangelism.
Huneven’s narrator, Dana, is a restaurant critic and memoirist who belongs to a Unitarian Universalist church in Arroyo, California. The wealthy and highly educated group of about 300 members is liberal to one fault, more devoted to diversity than to divinity: Atheists Welcome! They are entirely focused on social action and generally uncomfortable with Jesus-talk. By heavenly coincidence, the church bears its initials AUUCC, pronounced “awk”.
Although Dana has been in for 24 years, in the opening pages she confesses to a “midlife spiritual drift,” a growing ambivalence about organized religion. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to church again,” she says. “Almost everything about Sunday worship started to annoy me.”
The universe, of course, has other plans for Dana.
When the minister suddenly announces his intention to retire, a committee is formed to conduct a year-long search to find his replacement. The intense small group must articulate church goals, interview ministerial candidates, and present the best candidate to the laity.
Dana is discouraged and flattered to be asked to join the search committee, though the outgoing minister warns her, “Not everyone survives prolonged exposure to all the behind-the-scenes and inner workings of an institution.” Still, Dana imagines participating will enliven her spiritual life and even help her create an organization that interests her more. “I was hungry,” she says, “for intense discussions of spiritual issues, theological trends, and the ministry itself; topics that my husband and a-religious friends were not inclined to explore: the faith, surrender, Baptist politics, the flames all the mystics see.”
Behind these metaphysical preoccupations, Dana also harbors a secret motive, which becomes the embodiment of this book. Participating in the search committee, she hopes, will provide her with the material she needs for her next memoir: “The Search, or how five or six intelligent and well-meaning people choose their new leader. A study of democracy in miniature. A fractal of the national process. Plus recipes.
The stakes may be the salute itself, but, as is so often the case, the real question of church work is who wears what, whether members should clap for the choir and other distractions. sown in every congregation by the minions of Screwtape. Even Dana wonders, “Who would want to read a book about a church board,” but the story that develops from that ultra-thin premise is miraculously engaging. Dana finds herself on a committee divided into older members who know exactly how things should be and younger members who are fed up with ministers talking about Annie Dillard. One of them is covered in tattoos; another is in a polyamorous relationship. “It wasn’t quite the bright, wise group of deliberators of my fantasies,” Dana admits. But naturally, everyone imagines they have God – or the Goddess – on their side.
This theme, explored with light wit and deep humanity, makes this unapologetically religious novel surprisingly relevant to our divisive political era. Dana is confused and sometimes angry that her fellow committee members don’t like or dislike the same candidates she does. How can we convince people that they should reject fake antics that they find inspiring? How can we resist the bitterness that comes from knowing that we are right when everyone else is wrong? An older member of the search committee kindly advises, “The consensus isn’t just that everyone agrees,” but Dana is often too angry to understand what that might entail.
Clearly, there’s more than a soup of autobiography mixed into this novel. Like Dana, Huneven spent time in seminary and later became an award-winning restaurant critic and food writer. She herself attends a Unitarian Universalist church and once served on a search committee to find an associate minister. The congregants of Huneven must look to these pages like holy scripture for signs of their faces and their weaknesses. But I suspect the author is far too experienced to raise his own knowledge in this untransformed story.
Yet there is something refreshing and transparent about “research”. For all our oversharing, we have relatively few novelists willing to write about the role of religion in contemporary life – and even fewer who approach spiritual practices with humor, empathy and lived wisdom. Huneven is one of those rare spirits. Religion neither bores nor frightens him. She knows what a rich and loaded sanctuary the sanctuary can be.
“Church is the only place I know that is soul-first,” Dana says, “that focuses on spiritual values and builds community around them. Church gives me larger, more compassionate ways to think to my life – and to the world.”
The same could be said of a reflective novel like this.